Highly Sensitive Adolescents and COVID-19 Distress
16th September 2021 - By Shuhei Iimura
About the authors
Shuhei Iimura is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Tokyo. His research interests include differential susceptibility in adolescence. His current research uses a longitudinal survey method to investigate how highly sensitive adolescents adapt to changes in the school environment.
Highly sensitive adolescents tend to report higher levels of COVID-19-related distress. However, our findings suggest that resilience, defined as the ability to bounce back from adversity, may play an important role in adolescents’ mental health during a pandemic.
Mental Health During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Since 2019, people have been facing a global outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). In the early phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries implemented measures such as lockdowns and school closures. Although vaccination is now underway in many countries, the pandemic continues to affect people’s behaviour and mental health.
Several studies have been conducted in order to investigate effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on psychological well-being and mental health. According to these studies, people tend to experience negative responses in relation to the pandemic, such as anxiety, depression, coronary phobia, and xenophobia (1).
In addition, a recent systematic review points out that belonging to a younger age group and being a student are risk factors that predict higher levels of psychopathology during the pandemic (2). Factors such as school closures, increased social distance from friends, and decreased family well-being, may be contributing to the decline in mental health among young people.
The Role of Environmental Sensitivity and Resilience
According to theories of environmental sensitivity (3, 4), people differ in their susceptibility to positive, but also adverse experiences such as the negative consequences of a pandemic. In other words, highly sensitive individuals may be more likely to experience COVID-19-related distress than less sensitive individuals because they might show greater awareness and deeper processing of negative experiences in relation to the pandemic. Therefore, individual differences in environmental sensitivity may be an important factor for youth mental health during a pandemic.
Another important factor is resilience, defined as the ability to bounce back. Resilience is the results of protective factors that are involved in the process of recovery from distress (e.g., the ability of an individual to cope well with stress, the availability of social support). Several studies suggest that resilience can mitigate distress during a pandemic (5).
Hence, sensitive youth may be more likely to experience COVID-19-related distress, but their distress may also be reduced more strongly if they have greater resilience.
Study aim and methods
In my recent study (6), I aimed to examine the correlation between COVID-19 distress experienced by adolescents, environmental sensitivity (as a personality trait), and resilience (as the ability to bounce back). In October 2020, 441 students attending a university in Tokyo were recruited to participate in this online study using Google Forms and answered three scales.
The first scale measures the degree of distress associated with COVID-19 in the last seven days. This scale includes items such as “I am worried about contracting the virus” and “I am worried about keeping my family safe from the virus,” which measures fears and traumatic symptoms related to COVID-19.
The second scale, the higly sensitive person scale, measures the degree of sensitivity to environmental stimuli. This scale includes items such as whether they are easily overwhelmed by strong sensory stimuli and whether they are easily confused by changes in their lives, measuring environmental sensitivity as a personality trait.
The third scale measures the degree of resilience. This scale includes items such as “I tend to bounce back quickly after hard times” and “It does not take me long to recover from a stressful event.”
The key findings of this study provided evidence in support of our initial hypotheses (6).
First, as expected, highly sensitive adolescents showed higher levels of distress associated with COVID-19.
Second, more resilient adolescents tended to have lower COVID-19-related distress.
Third, the most important finding was that the relationship between sensitivity and COVID-19-related distress was reduced when resilience was higher.
Implications for the public
Highly sensitive adolescents are more likely to be negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic than those with low sensitivity. However, resilience proves especially beneficial for the mental health of highly sensitive adolescents.
Importantly, several studies suggest that highly sensitive adolescents are more likely to benefit from resilience-enhancing psycho-educational interventions (7, 8), meaning that their level of resilience can be increased through psychological programmes.
- Taylor, S., Landry, C. A., Paluszek, M. M., Fergus, T. A., McKay, D., & Asmundson, G. J. G. (2020). Development and initial validation of the COVID Stress Scales. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 72, 102232. doi: 10.1016/j.janxdis.2020.102232
- Xiong, J., Lipsitz, O., Nasri, F., Lui, L. M. W., Gill, H., Phan, L., Chen-Li, D., Iacobucci, M., Ho, R., Majeed, A., & McIntyre, R. S. (2020). Impact of COVID-19 pandemic on mental health in the general population: A systematic review. Journal of Affective Disorders, 277, 55-64. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2020.08.001
- Greven, C. U., Lionetti, F., Booth, C., Aron, E. N., Fox, E., Schendan, H. E., … Homberg, J. (2019). Sensory processing sensitivity in the context of environmental sensitivity: A critical review and development of research agenda. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 98, 287-305. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2019.01.009
- Pluess, M. (2015). Individual differences in environmental sensitivity. Child Development Perspectives, 9, 138-143. doi: 10.1111/cdep.12120
- Zager Kocjan, G., Kavčič, T., & Avsec, A. (2021). Resilience matters: Explaining the association between personality and psychological functioning during the COVID-19 pandemic. International Journal of Clinical and Health Psychology, 21, 100198. doi: 10.1016/j.ijchp.2020.08.002
- Iimura, S. (2021). Sensory-processing sensitivity and COVID-19 stress in a young population: The mediating role of resilience. Personality and Individual Differences. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2021.111183
- Kibe, C., Suzuki, M., Hirano, M., & Boniwell, I. (2020). Sensory processing sensitivity and culturally modified resilience education: Differential susceptibility in Japanese adolescents. PloS One, 15, 1-17. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0239002
- Pluess, M., & Boniwell, I. (2015). Sensory-processing sensitivity predicts treatment response to a school-based depression prevention program: Evidence of vantage sensitivity. Personality and Individual Differences, 82, 40-45. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2015.03.011